June 12, 2018

Why Anthony Bourdain Mattered

Reuben A. Guttman Founding member of Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC


It might very well have been about the time that former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates was speaking at the American Constitution Society's annual convention last Thursday night in Washington, DC that food critic and CNN commentator Anthony Bourdain was ending his life in a hotel room across the Atlantic in France.

The mind works in strange ways; I have been thinking about Bourdain's untimely passing, and perhaps it is just human nature to recall where you were when an event of some consequence occurs. And just maybe, there is some irony here.

Yates stood up against a President, refusing to defend a travel ban that would have restricted - if not downright blocked - the immigration of those who are at the core of what this nation is about: an amalgam of diversity and a blending of culture.

Of course, since Yates stood up to the President and lost her job for doing so, the rest of us – on almost a daily basis – have witnessed the erosion of the rule of law and grappled with how to make all Americans fully understand the depth of our national crisis.

Bourdain just may have been the guy who made some headway on that score; through his art form – food – he tackled a progressive agenda at the dinner table. He brought directly into the homes of average Americans the richness, dignity, and beauty of cultures across the globe. He did not take us to the establishments of the rich and famous; he took us to the cafes of the working class - indeed, the very people who might find themselves one day lining up for the approval of a US Customs official. He broke bread in Lebanon, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Iran. He gave Mr. and Mrs. American reason to respect the cultures that their President was trashing.

Food was just the excuse - the catalyst, if you will - to share cultural differences and similarities and talk about controversial issues and of course deliver a progressive message.  He traveled to Oakland, California, shared a meal with Black Panther Party founder, Bobby Seale, and talked civil rights and Black Lives Matter. He went to Seattle, explored some lesser known restaurants, and took time to imbibe in and thus promote the legalization of marijuana.

Bourdain was not merely an incidental progressive; he championed LGTBQ rights and even signed on to an amicus brief opposing discrimination and urging the Supreme Court to enforce equality in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was recently decided by the Supreme Court.

Despite his fame – and undoubtedly fortune – he was a supporter of the little guy as noted in a May 19, 2018 tweet: “Yeah yeah yeah, I know. I’m a crank. But the word “royals” just …will never go down easy. Only person I ever felt comfortable referring to as “Prince” came from Minneapolis.”

In a world of binary thinking – e.g. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, plaintiff side or defense side – Bourdain was anything but binary. In a May 5, 2018 tweet he noted: “Never the left nor the right have an exclusive on bad governance, greed or corruption. We’ve seen plenty of oppressive regimes from both.”

And then there was the simplicity of his wit; bemused if not disgusted by Michael Cohen, the President’s counsel, Bourdain tweeted on April 27, 2017: “A lawyer with three clients and 16 cell phones sounds totally legit.”

Over the last year, as the news cycled droned on with reports on the Russia investigation, violations of the emoluments clause, and a host of parasites cashing in on the Trump Presidency, it seemed that many of us - from progressive stalwarts to political junkies and scholars - tuned in to Bourdain. He had an attraction that we could not exactly put our finger on.

He was the chef who served comfort food for the brain; he delivered a progressive message without dribbling cites to legal cases or speaking in the doctrinaire language of the academic world. Food was the medium for the message – and a highly effective one. Maybe he was a throwback to an era where artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger used their medium to communicate messages. Today, it seems that artists forget their medium; too many are merely talking heads who satisfy only our curiosity about them but not their cause.

Through his medium of food, Anthony Bourdain’s message made sense to Americans. He brought us into the lives of working class people; he taught us to respect the richness of their culture; he gave us reasons to care about them. He taught us that we are different, and yet in many ways, the same - and that those differences should be treasured and embraced.

Curiously, the trajectory of Bourdain began with a 1999 New Yorker article about the underbelly of the restaurant world. He was known as the "bad boy" chef, but perhaps that was just because he was a whistleblower - indeed, following the progressive tradition of exposing widely accepted impropriety.

When the social history of this era is written, there will be some attention paid to Anthony Bourdain. He mattered as a model for how Americans should relish cultural diversity at a time when our leaders promoted cultural division. He mattered for his independent thought and he mattered for his mastery of using an artistic medium to deliver his messages.

And, particularly at a time when our President was rallying the domestic masses against those of different cultures and ethnicities, it was Bourdain who was demonstrating the humanity of those whom Mr. Trump might be inclined to denigrate, deport, or break apart.

It is not surprising that upon learning of his passing, President Obama issued the following tweet:

"’Low plastic stools, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi Beer.’ This is how I will remember Tony. He taught us about food - but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us less afraid of the unknown. We will miss him."